Structure And The Novel

By Susan Mary Malone

When new writers dive into fiction, mostly they just put words to page. Which is great!  It’s the way you have to start. In order to find her voice, a writer must write and write and write. There is no other way. But what results is often a big blob of sprawling pages, where the storyline drifts here and there and yon; where many scenes and even entire plot threads dangle out in space, having no relation to the actual plot. What you have is basically an amoeba.

And ah, that’s perfect! I hear your surprise. But from there you can take all that you’ve learned of your characters and storyline, and begin to fashion this plethora of words and multitude of pages into a real novel.

So often writers tell me, “I don’t want to hear about structure; it’ll hamper my creativity!”  And while at the outset I don’t dispute this, once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, if you don’t take a hard look at structure that amoeba will stay just that—a single-celled organism, which folks find kinda slimy. Your job, as a true novelist, is to take that big fat blob and carve away at it to find the true meat and bones of the book—the plot, the story, the main theme and major premise, as well as how the characters serve that and vice versa. As Michelangelo said, David was always in the marble; he just had to sculpt away to find him. It’s the same with your book–the jewel is there; your job is to scrape away all of the superfluous layers of verbiage to find it.

Structure is, most simply put, the arc of the storyline. (Of course, we often confuse simple with easy. Don’t make that mistake here!) But this is how great novels are created, and all of them follow a pattern of rising and falling, ebbing and flowing. The trick is to know when to rise, when to crest, and when to begin the last push to the finish line. Without an in-depth understanding of this, folks write novels that take fifty to a hundred pages to get into (which I see all the time), those with sagging middles (I’ve given workshops on this—agents and editors complain to me most about it as well), those which coast to the finish, or end with a bang only the writer goes on for another fifty pages.

I’ve given half-day workshops on the structure of novels, and writers are always surprised, overwhelmed, dismayed, and by the end of the session, ecstatic—a light bulb has flipped on! When you understand structure, it takes so much of that grasping-in-the-dark feeling away. It brings a confidence to the writer, as he knows where and when and how the story needs to build to crescendo, and where the rest stops are along the way; where the character needs trials and tribulations, and when he needs love; who are the allies and villains, and what needs to be learned in order for the grail to be reached. Yes, a lot happening in this story with these people who were simply once talking in your head!

A great resource for this is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. One word of caution here—it really helps if you’ve written a lot before immersing yourself in Vogler’s book. It confuses very new writers; again, you need to write and write and write and . . . I think I already said this before delving deeply into this topic.

But once you’re ready, study it. Contact me for any questions about this–it’s one of the things I specialize in. Read Vogler’s book.Take a workshop or class on it. However you dive in, dive in! Your books will thank you for it. Your creative mind will jump for joy. And ultimately, your readers, while not having much clue as to what novel structure actually is but can point to books that “lose them,” will tout you as a great author. Your point exactly!

About Susan Mary Malone

Susan Mary Malone has worked as a freelance editor since 1993, with a BS in Political Science and minors in English and Journalism. Her client list includes NY Times Bestsellers, Essence Bestsellers and books featured in Publishers Weekly. She is also an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction herself. She participates as a speaker in literary conferences such as the Harriett Austin Writer’s Conference (at the University of Georgia), the Blue Ridge Writer’s Conference, the SouthWest Writer’s Conference, and the East Texas Writer’s Guild, among others. Her full biography and featured list of published authors can be viewed at http://www.maloneeditorial.com.